One of the recurring topics in the Pagan blogosphere is that of a generation gap. Elders feel shouldered aside, our teachings unwanted; young Pagans feel stifled and held back by elders who trust them too little, and try to control them too much.
Recently, I had a dream related to that problem.
In the dream, I was wandering through a sprawling, chaotic Pagan gathering. It was colorful and noisy, but I knew very few people who were there, and the dream had an aimless quality until I came to a place where someone had set out a dance floor.
Many couples were already out on the floor, dancing together, ballroom style.
I grew up in a family that dances. On New Year’s Eve, my parents would put on old records and we would dance: my parents together, my brother with my mother, and my father with me.
I love to dance.
However, as I approached the dance floor, only one partner was available, a young woman I did not know. I hesitated when she held out her arms to me–not because, knowing how blissfully graceful it is to dance with someone who is expert in the lead, I was reluctant to pair off with another woman. I’ve danced with inexpert partners before, and I’m not a good enough dancer to make up for whatever skills they might lack.
But I said yes, and she put her hand on my waist and I put mine on her shoulder, and off we went.
And it was wonderful! The music caught us up, and the dancing felt almost like flying.
Laughing, I encouraged my partner to spin me around, and she did, and that was wonderful, too.
Then, in the way of dreams, my partner shifted from being simply an anonymous dancer to someone I know: one of the many students I’ve come to love in my job as a teacher.
Right at the moment I recognized her, she leaned me back–way back!–in a dip almost to the floor. And in that moment, I remembered that I no longer have the lithe and flexible body of my girlhood, but an aging, thick-waisted one with a bad back. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure this was a good idea. But I decided to trust her, and she leaned me back… back… back… And held me in place, defying gravity for an endless, impossible moment.
And then she pulled me up again into laughter, and I woke up.
I woke up, but the dream stayed with me. I had no idea what it could mean, but I didn’t have long to think about it, because that morning was my Quaker meeting’s annual retreat, and I had to hurry off to join them.
In hindsight, the timing of my dream was interesting.
One of the jobs I’ve done at my meeting is helping run our “Young Friends” group, for teens in the meeting. I’m not doing it now, but I’m still close to some of the kids who were part of the group when I was. And of all the young Quakers I know, there’s one I’m especially close to. She often seeks me out after meeting to talk, or just to be together. In fact, when she stays in worship, she often chooses to sit near me, and when the teens come to join us for the last few minutes of worship, she often sits next to me, cross-legged on the floor. She leans her head up against me, and I take her hand or put an arm around her.
When got to the retreat that morning, there she was. We only had a minute together before our workshops began. But as we walked between the buildings, I asked her, “How did you become such a good friend of mine?”
She grinned, and with a skipping step, she answered, “I don’t know. Luck?”
But it wasn’t luck–it was her. It was her making a choice.
I think my dream was telling me something, something important.
One of the things I am learning as I age is how powerful is the longing to pass something of meaning along to those who come after me. It’s true in the Pagan community–the setting, after all, of my dream–it’s true with the children of my friends, and it’s true in the classroom where I teach English literature and how to proofread a term paper. Part of growing into my crone-hood, for me, seems to be a hunger to take on this eldering role, and when it happens, it is one of the most satisfying things in my life.
But here’s the trick: I can’t make it happen. I can’t, by force of will or cleverness, become a mentor to every student in my classroom or my circle, every teenager in my meeting… or even any particular student or young person.
I can be open to it. I can say yes, and I can take a few risks to follow that through.
But although, like many people, I think I once had the impression that eldering is about having answers to give to those that I mentor, I am coming to understand that our answers are almost beside the point.
What my dream was telling me, I think, is that “elder” is not a role we get to choose, however deeply we may hunger for it. Neither the job nor what it will encompass is really under our control. We do not choose our partners. We do not choose the steps. It’s not about who we think needs us, or what we think they need to know.
In the end, we do not lead this dance. I think that’s what makes it so beautiful.